Category Archives: universities

stalemate UPDATED

This morning I saw a post from Paul Corrigan about the assessment movement’s real impact, which amounted to “widely observed rituals of compliance” but little genuine change. The real focus of both the post and the Ted Marchese essay it took its title from was the continuing stalemate between assessment and accountability in higher ed.  This is caused in part by everyone talking past one another. Assessment experts tend to regard their own activity as a scholarly enterprise that unaccountably gets abused by the administrators who implement it. Faculty hear most assessment talk as either meaningless College of Ed jargon or administrators’ pernicious attempts to micromanage the work conducted in  classrooms.  Administrators regard it chiefly as something done to satisfy trustees or politicians, and try to think of it as little as possible otherwise. So yes, no one understands anyone else here, but that’s not why the stalemate has lasted almost as long as the assessment movement itself.

What Corrigan doesn’t seem to recognize is that these three groups do not have equal voice in this matter, because it is the administrators, as the folks who hire the assessment experts as staffers or consultants, and who “manage” the faculty, who have decided time and again to define and pursue assessment largely as accountability, standardization, and outward compliance.  There is a political economy to the way that higher education evaluates itself, and I believe that both assessment experts and disciplinary faculty need to understand how assessment and accountability both work within the emerging regimes of neoliberal management of public higher education.

Christopher Newfield, in the important piece I just linked to, spells out the strange imperviousness of administrators to the knowledge extracted by the accountability schemes they use to manage faculty and student interactions. Their imperviousness derives from their recent self-definition as managers rather than faculty members:

In contrast to professional authority, which is grounded in expertise and expert communities, managerial authority flows from its ties to owners and is formally independent of expertise.  Management obviously needs to be competent, but competence seems no longer to require either substantive expertise with the firm’s products or meaningful contact with employees.  The absence of contact with and substantive knowledge of core activities, in managerial culture, function as an operational strength.  In universities, faculty administrators lose effectiveness when they are seen as too close to the faculty to make tough decisions.

In the upside-down world of managerial culture and Christensen’s fantasies of “disruption,” paying too close attention to the information collected by others, or seeming too responsive to what it tells you about students or faculty, all these are signs of weakness, not strength.  And how else can we read the last 10 years of developments in public higher education, except as a demonstration of these principles in action?

So how might we redirect the discussion back toward improvements in learning, for both students and faculty?  One possibility suggested by Newfield is to tie improvement back to the notion of shared governance, and regard good governance and faculty communities of expertise as a necessary but not sufficient condition for improved teaching and learning.  And while we’re discussing research, I would love to see someone analyze the impact that governance has on teaching and learning.


(NOTE: Those interested in discipline-specific approaches to assessment in literature departments should simply go to Laura Rosenthal and Donna Heiland’s Teagle Foundation collection to see a full range of responses to this problem)

(UPDATE, NOTE: Dr. Randi Gray Kristensen directed me to this article, which laid out a similar argument in 1999: Cris Shore and Susan Wright, “Audit Culture and Anthropology: Neo-Liberalism in British Higher Education,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp.557-575; )

(2nd UPDATE, NOTE: Also found this, an illuminating comparative, ethnographic discussion of “audit culture” and “neoliberalism” in various national contexts: ANDREW B. KIPNIS, “Audit cultures: Neoliberal governmentality, socialist legacy, or technologies of governing?” American Ethnologist, Volume 35, Issue 2, pages May 2008: 275–289;

money quote

“If the Left is going to launch a realistic offensive in the United States, it can only happen, it seems to me, if we start taking this notion of self-creation seriously, and understand that no one is going to look at members of caste-like, self-reproducing elites that try to monopolize the power to determine what’s important in human life, and accept them as genuine agents of human liberation.”–David Graeber, “Preface: Spring 2005” (h/t Zunguzungu’s Tumblr)


Tim Burke’s response to “Stop Doing Cultural Studies”

I don’t want to hijack the still-emerging discussion of Cynthia Richards’s excellent post on the limits of teaching cultural studies in a small liberal arts college, but I did want to call people’s attention to the historian Tim Burke’s cogent response to Warner and Siskin over at his blog, Easily Distracted.

(For those who don’t know his work, Burke is a specialist in modern African history at Swarthmore, but his long-running blog is far more wide-ranging)

Burke raises an interesting question: does the process of disciplinary change really follow our legitimating narratives of change?

What’s interesting in these moments is that they reveal how disciplines are not really markets, nor are they composed of a series of persuasive speech acts, though we sometimes act as if or claim that either or both are true. E.g., we sometimes argue that disciplines change because their practicioners have new interests, priorities or techniques, that they have a supple if slow-paced response to a kind of intellectual market. You write what you think is important, and the field either “buys” it or it doesn’t. And we sometimes say that the priorities of a discipline are determined by persuasion: that scholars do work and then argue for its importance or necessity. If they argue well, ta-da! knowledge.

As you might suspect, the actual development of disciplines, as debates like this show, is not so simple.  And these accounts, he argues, have important implications for the discussions a number of literary scholars have been having lately about justifying the humanities in the contemporary university.  Take a look, and tell us what you think.


The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies

As you’re all thinking about panel proposals for next year’s ASECS, we’re going to revisit the conversation from a panel at last year’s meeting:  “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  Over the new few weeks we will be posting essays based on comments delivered at this panel, as well as some follow-up ideas that were not presented at the panel.

The inspiration for the panel that generated the essays that will follow came from two directions: first, from an observation that the Group for Early Modern Cultural Students (GEMCS), originally conceived to bring together scholars from a range of pre-1900 fields, has been attracting mostly students and professors in the field formerly known as “Renaissance;” and second, from the publication of William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin’s essay, “Stopping Cultural Studies.”  As chair of the Cultural Studies Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), I proposed a session that combined these topics called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  While these two topics are not obviously related, both share certain challenges.  GEMCS had lively conferences, but never quite succeeded as much as was hoped in opening up the possibility of more integrated and far-reaching considerations of literature and culture across field divisions.  Partly, I think, this is due the fact that while twenty years ago the phrase “early modern” offered a range of possibilities, it has now, at least professionally, simply replaced “Renaissance,” so younger scholars coming into the discipline cannot be blamed for (mistakenly) assuming that a paper on Jane Austen would have no place at a GEMCS meeting.   Perhaps, though, there is a deeper issue as well and that recent stresses on the profession as a whole have made field distinctions even more important. If you can only go to one conference every year, it might be a better investment to seek out other specialists.  While decisions based on travel budgets are understandable, we nevertheless need to continue to think about ways to promote research and teaching that move beyond the limits of periodization.

While some of the papers on the panel considered periodization, most more centrally addressed the problem of Cultural Studies.  Warner and Siskin propose that we abandon the entire enterprise called “cultural studies,” although they do not offer an alternative and insist that they are under no obligation to do so.  They see two main problems with cultural studies as currently practiced: (1) that the term “culture” hides the doubled meanings of Culture (meaning great works of art, literature, etc.) and culture (meaning everyday practices, “non-literary” texts, etc.) and that (2) as a result we have been unable to “transcend previous limits” (104).  Much as we try to move beyond them, we keep getting pulled back to traditional objects of study and traditional disciplinary boundaries. 

            The panel attracted considerable attention, perhaps in part as a result of the rhetorical flair involved in telling one’s colleagues to cut it out.  Warner and Siskin are right that “culture” is a “Teflon category.”  But if the category contains so much slippage, how will we be able to tell when we’ve stopped?  Wouldn’t anything produced after stopping be easily folded back into this category?  How is “remediation”—the only suggestion of an alternative in the essay—not part of “culture”?  Their suggestion to stop cultural studies is so intriguing, disturbing, and puzzling,  I think, because in practical terms—and as defined by Warner and Siskin– it translates into stopping literary scholarship altogether, as cultural studies has become so amorphous as to encompass everything but perhaps New Criticism, to which few are clamoring to return in its original restricted form.  Thus, I think this essay provokes a key professional anxiety of our moment: that we will be stopped altogether.

            Over the next month or two, we will be posting the brief comments written by the panelists who participated, who attended, and/or who have something to say about this issue.   These essays take seriously the possibly of stopping, but also explore ways to get started again.  They look at cultural studies in the broader context of disciplinary survival.  Some address how cultural studies has disturbed, challenged, and stretched departments and curricula.  And yet if, in spite of this turbulence, cultural studies ultimately, as Warner and Siskin suggest, preserves rather than upends, then maybe it has been the ally of literary study all along.  Warner and Siskin observe that cultural studies has insufficiently transformed institutional practice; some of the essays, however, record experiences of grappling with the opposite objection: that cultural studies has changed department offerings too much.  Both objections point to a concern that literature department curricula are somehow not aligned with the needs, desires, or ideal education of today’s students.  I wonder, then, if taking this common ground seriously might lead us to another way into the problem.  Perhaps we might think about ways to move from this one-way street to a two-ways street; that is, to think about what we want students to learn as not only shaped by our research programs, but as itself a partner in further inquiry.


Works Cited

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession (2008): 94-107. Print.

Advocating for the Humanities

Readers of “The Long Eighteenth” might want to visit this new site on humanities advocacy:

“4Humanities is a site created by the international community of digital humanities scholars and educators to assist in advocacy for the humanities.

“4Humanities is both a platform and a resource.   As a platform, 4Humanities will stage the efforts of humanities advocates to reach out to the public.  We are a combination newspaper, magazine, channel, blog, wiki, and social network.  We solicit well-reasoned or creative demonstrations, examples, testimonials, arguments, opinion pieces, open letters, press releases, print posters, video “advertisements,” write-in campaigns, social-media campaigns, short films, and other innovative forms of humanities advocacy, along with accessibly-written scholarly works grounding the whole in research or reflection about the state of the humanities.

“As a resource, 4Humanities will provide humanities advocates with a stockpile of digital tools, collaboration methods, royalty-free designs and images, best practices, new-media expertise, and customizable newsfeeds of issues and events relevant to the state of the humanities in any local or national context.  Whether humanities advocates choose to conduct their publicity on 4Humanities itself or instead through their own newsletter, Web site, blog, and so on, we want to help with the best that digital-humanities experts have to offer.”

is transparency the same thing as accountability?

I was a little surprised to see all the traffic that came over here about yesterday’s Yglesias/Newfield post, until I realized that Yglesias had responded to me on his own blog.  Since Yglesias seems genuinely interested in communicating with academics on some policy issues (though they sometimes seem less eager to hear from him), I thought I’d lay out my differences with him.  This seems particularly important, since Yglesias seems to believe that my “alternative [to the status quo at universities] is very much along the same lines as what [he is] arguing for.”

Um, afraid not.  Yglesias, for whatever reason, does not seem to register that the point of my post was that Newfield (unlike Yglesias so far) seems to understand the negative political consequences of higher ed accountability regimes for institutions that serve underrepresented populations.  In Newfield’s historical argument, which he has elaborated upon in several books, efficiency regimes and disinvestment go together, because one serve as the pretext and rationale for the other.  This seems to be historically demonstrable, and describes, for example, the plight of the California system much better than any “tenured professors are lazy parasites who don’t care about their students” theory.

I understand that this is an arguable point, but I do wish that Yglesias would attempt at least to recognize it, along with my other point, which is that long-term disinvestment in public universities is a) a political problem for those interested in liberal or left-wing ideals of democratic access to higher education and b) a major part of the right wing privatization and politicization strategies that have overtaken K-12 and now higher ed reform for some time.  So any educational reform that does not at least try to recognize the political contexts of the productivity “debate” is a non-starter, in my opinion.  At the very least, such a technocratic view of educational policy cannot be considered very left-wing, or liberal, in my view, because it ignores the ideological valences of current debates over defining and account for teacher “productivity.”

My disagreement with Yglesias can be summed up in the innocent-sounding sentence I found in his response, which omitted any discussion of Newfield or his point:

We could try to debate the difference between this kind of “transparency” and the dream “accountability” model, but I think they amount to the same thing.

Well, no.  If he hasn’t lived through an institution’s trying to implement such accountability measures (as I have), he may want to read some books on the bureaucratic complexities that such measures introduce into both faculty’s and students’ lives.  But the fundamental point is that such measures, no matter how appropriate or well-designed, can never be considered transparent, and have only an indirect relation or benefit to the actual business of teaching and learning at a university.

So my message to Yglesias would be: propose what you want, but remember that your proposals would be better, and certainly better received, if you showed more awareness of how they would concretely impact the people and institutions you’re talking about.

Best wishes,


what would a left critique of higher education look like?

Well, it certainly wouldn’t look like this piece by Matt Yglesias, which reads like every other piece by Yglesias on education policy, though every Yglesias piece seems to conclude with a solemn reference to Kevin Carey‘s opinions on technology, distance education, and enhanced classroom “productivity.”  I would forgive the naivete about teaching (has Yglesias ever faced a classroom full of students, let alone tried logging onto Blackboard?), if Yglesias didn’t also resort to union- and teacher-bashing in many of these posts.  But sadly most of these pieces reiterate over and over again the notion that boosting teacher “productivity” equals better “access.”  And it’s striking to me how Yglesias, along with many others, keeps offering ramped-up accountability measures as a way to stave off public disinvestment.

In contrast with Yglesias’s neo-liberal approach, this interview with Christopher Newfield seems to take a longer-term and more dialectical view of accountability and disinvestment, and sees them as two sides of the same conservative impulse that has been undermining public higher education since the late ’60s, when “Ronald Reagan ran against Berkeley.”  As Newfield states:

The other flank of the culture wars is the budget wars and my argument is they are basically the same thing. The goal was to discredit fields that had studied negative aspects of American life. The second goal was to use budget pressures to de-fund disciplines that seemed too critical of the established order. History, literature studies, anthropology, sociology — anything that isn’t econometric and efficiency oriented, anything too skeptical, all of that stuff should only be tolerated if it can pay its own way.

What Newfield suggests is something that I have observed repeatedly, which is that the humanities–no matter how “uncontroversial” they become–will not escape the efficiency-and-accountability regimes being discussed in most statehouses.  Faculty in those fields will have to start arguing directly against these models for instruction, if they hope to retain any public support for what they do.

The other part of Newfield’s argument, which I am becoming more and more persuaded of, is that universities will need to become much more transparent about where their money comes from and where it goes: the public imagines that tenured professors sit around all day long teaching a handful of students and producing hoity-toity research that no one sees.  The structural imbalance between the costs of humanities and scientific research is never brought to the public’s attention, and humanities research itself disappears from view in most of these accounts.  So putting the institution’s focus squarely back on enrollments and teaching would actually benefit the humanities both internally and externally.  And I believe that universities would sound more plausible describing themselves as longer-term investments in the public good, if they behaved this way more often.


How Professors Think

Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment studies the process of evaluating and awarding grants in multi-disciplinary committees.  In this well-written and relentlessly object study (in the sense that Lamont has no ax to grind as far as I can tell and treats her subjects with respect), the author mainly I think is offering a counterpoint to Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that academic awards constitute a system of self-reproduction.  Instead, Lamont finds that even though evaluators certainly see the application through particular lenses, they nevertheless in general make a sincere effort to discover quality.  This process, however, takes place contextually through a series of negotiations in which a variety of factors shape decisions.  But while Lamont argues that the fate of each proposal is shaped by some amount of luck and that certain factors such as gender, location, and prestige of the applicant’s institution can work either for them or against them, faith in the fairness of the system is crucial to its operation.

One point that struck me was the importance of prestige, which shouldn’t be a surprise although it’s interesting to “overhear” committee deliberations that accept prestige markers so wholeheartedly.  While committees seemed to make efforts to distribute awards across a variety of institutions when it came to borderline cases, a prestigious institution and letters from prestigious scholars seemed to make a pretty big difference.  Part of the reason for this seemed to be the desire of committee members to impress each other as they engaged in deliberations.  At the same time, Lamont points out, this does not necessarily make the whole process a “fix” since employment by a prestigious institution and approval by a prestigious scholar can be genuine evidence of accomplishment.  Further, it is only one factor among many.

Lamont makes one point of particular relevance to literary scholars:  in multi-disciplinary competitions applicants from our field fare poorly.  (Historians, by contrast, do very well.)  She does not attribute this to a general disrespect for literary study but instead to a “crisis of legitimation.”  She characterizes literary scholarship as a field in decline, evidenced in part by its decrease in the production of PhDs.  (This was interesting to read, of course, since so much of the discussion around MLA has been about overproduction.  Just to be clear, though, she takes the decline as an indicator of the state of the field and does not necessarily recommend changing it.)   I have often assumed that most fields have key points of disagreement, but this turns out to be less true than one would think, according to Lamont.  Literary scholars who serve as judges remain in her observation deeply divided over both theory and multiculturalism.  Since the field doesn’t seem to have a central, agree-upon standard of quality, applications for funding are less likely to be successful.

Of course, we have heard a lot lately about the troubled nature of our field.  Usually this comes from two different directions: on the one hand, many call attention to the employment crisis, the increasing reliance on adjuncts, new burdens being placed on faculty, and decreasing undergraduate enrollments.  On the other hand, traditionalists object to the collapse of a particular cannon, interdisciplinarity, and identity politics.  Lamont’s study, though, offers something of a fresh perspective.  Without focusing on the economic issues or entering the canon wars, she sees a crisis of legitimation that seems to be damaging in a different, less-discussed context.


The Last Professors

Last week in New York Times Stanley Fish wrote about Frank Donoghue’s recent book, The Last Professors. Fish doesn’t so much review the book as summarize it, noting briefly and unhelpfully at the end that he timed his life perfectly so as not to be shut out of the professoriate. I won’t repeat the summary, but it’s worth reading, as is Donoghue’s book.

I would only add a couple of points that Donoghue raises but Fish doesn’t engage. To me, one of Donoghue’s most vexing suggestions is the connection he proposes between the research mission in universities and their current corporatization. Research expectations ballooned, he suggests, as universities competed for ranking scores. In some ways, Donoghue astutely notes, this pressure became particularly intense at state schools that could not rely on traditional forms of prestige. (As part of their alternative they also “branded” themselves through sports teams.) This research inflation certainly rings true from my own experience: when I started as an assistant profession at Florida State University in 1990, one could earn tenure on a book OR a series of articles, an option that had completely dissolved by the time I left twelve years later. Junior faculty, in fact, in the old days were encouraged to write articles so as not to put all their eggs in one basket.

At this year’s MLA, the Delegate Assembly voted to request that the Executive Council form a committee to address the situation of increasing reliance on adjuncts. In the many discussions I have seen over adjunct labor, the issue of the research mission rarely comes up. But if you follow Donoghue’s argument, there is a direct connection: the research mission increased demands on the faculty on a competitive model. This and the excessive reliance on contingent labor are part of the same demand by a professional class of administrators for a corporate-style “constant improvement,” in one case for prestige and in the other case for cutting costs.

But even though Donoghue is distressingly convincing that these developments come out of the same educational-industrial complex, it also seems that at some point those two forces would collide. Unless the climate changes radically, any institution that abandons research will lose considerable prestige. Donoghue’s answer, in part, is that certain kinds of institutions have indeed stopped competing for prestige and focus exclusively on offering practical skills in exchange for tuition (Phoenix University, for example). But it’s hard to imagine this happening at more elite institutions. Universities and colleges between Harvard and Phoenix, then, will continue, I imagine, to be pulled between the two models, maintaining at least some tenured/tenure-track positions to advance institutional ambitions. Further, the contingent workers who teach most of the classes will need still some kind of advanced degree, so there will be the need for at least a few tenured professors to teach in graduate programs.

Of course, the model of a tiny graduate faculty enabled by a mass of underpaid adjuncts is cold comfort. Some unlikely alliances might be in order. While a speed-up in the research production line may have had less to do with the ideal of advancing knowledge and more with attempts to move rankings, the possibility of becoming more Harvard-like and less Phoenix-like might continue to appeal to some administrators, some parents, and some students. Further, while learning outcomes assessment has undeniable ties to corporate-style quality management, recent studies have suggested that, as one would expect, students taught in departments where many instructors do not have secure positions learn less. This case can only be made, however, by studying outcomes.

For Donoghue, though, we have already reached the point of no return. What do others think?

Even though Fish doesn’t offer much of a response to Donoghue’s findings, it is still interesting to see this issue discussed in such a high-profile venue.


Total Quality Management

Sorry, I’m still fixated on the Bousquet Wire post I put up yesterday, because it recognized something that I’ve been thinking about for some time: the fate of the “common good” among institutions intended to serve the public.  We see this dynamic as often in universities as in municipal governments, and in both cases the erosion of the common good occurs when these institutions find themselves ruled by a new complex of local and remote managers.  This cost-cutting style of management, supported by a language of continual assessments and self-improvements, seems to be favored by local managers struggling under the gaze of a yet more distant management class indifferent to local concerns.  And, of course, the language of institutional self-improvement cannot conceal the deep failure of these institutions as they attempt to meet people’s needs.

Significantly, The Wire paired its tales of institutional dysfunction in the public domain (public schools and police departments) with analogous tales of dysfunction in the corporate domain (the newspaper).  Though these interlaced narratives puzzled the critics (why complain so much about newspapers, the print critics wondered?), it seems to me that the show’s creators were trying, as Bousquet recognizes, to show that the cause of this dysfunction lay in a management style common to both, in which the primary obligation of the manager is to shrink his organization and his workers’ wages to the smallest size, so as to minimize its claims upon the public.  It is a quintessentially defensive institutional strategy, emblematic of the era in which Grover Norquist dreamt of cutting government to the size where it could be drowned in a bathtub.

Bousquet notices this cost-cutting dynamic running throughout the The Wire’s depictions of Baltimore, and he immediately applies it to the contemporary public university, where assessments and accountability receive far more administrative discussion and support than educational goals, and yet the results of those assessments seem curiously open to manipulation “from below”:

What the [The Wire] grasps is that private corporate and public institutional managers both employ “quality” in an Orwellian register in which a “quality process” is one of continuously increasing workload and continuously eroding salary and benefits, with a single, doltish mantra employed everywhere—in police departments, in social services, and school systems, just as on college campuses: the perpetual command to “Do More With Less.”

As [one critic] observes, what this actually means “is doing less with less and cutting corners to make it look like more.” Hence the need for assessment instruments that everyone inside an organization understands to be trivial and easily spun to nearly any purpose by agile institutional actors.

The instruments are supposed to be easily defeated. As upper management continuously urges lower management, who in turn urge the workforce: “Be creative” with the numbers. Being creative with the numbers allows managers to survive in their own culture of claiming ever-larger improvements in productivity while papering over the enormous human cost.

The human cost isn’t just the immiseration of the workforce. It’s also the failure of these intrusively and anti-socially managed institutions, “highly productive” on paper, to actually deliver the policing, health care, and education they exist to provide.

What I find most intriguing about Bousquet’s account of the university is the degree to which it echoes the complaints of journalists like Jon Talton, who diagnoses a newspaper industry in decline largely because it grew too monopolistic, money-hungry, risk-averse, and detached from local communities and their needs to sustain any “sense of a public trust.”  And once again, the indifference of upper management to the actual purposes and values of journalism have helped to erode whatever public support or authority journalism might have had at one time, while driving the most capable people out of the organization.  Sound familiar?

Which leads me to my final question: are universities run nowadays by people who can speak credibly about the public trust?  And what, exactly, would “the public” demand if it could ask universities to change their practices or their priorities?